A successful, decadelong run is hard to achieve in the restaurant world. Harder still? Refreshing a successful, 10-year-old restaurant to attract new diners without hurting long-term relationships.
Avenue M is undertaking that challenge, while some new faces in Fletcher and Candler take on the equally difficult task of opening businesses during the ongoing pandemic.
Ralph Lonow’s history with Avenue M goes way back — all the way back, in fact, to when the Merrimon Avenue space was a popular industry bar called Usual Suspects. There, as a young and single member of the service industry, Lonow spent many a night after work.
Fast forward 10 years to 2019 when Lonow, now a married family man and certified sommelier with a decade under his belt at the Grove Park Inn’s Horizon and Vue 1913, learned that his friends, Avenue M owners Teri and Greg Siegal, were ready to retire. He heard opportunity knocking and reached out to industry veteran and longtime friend Tony Creed with the idea of a partnership. The pair signed the lease in June 2019.
Taking over an established and beloved restaurant — one with framed awards covering a wall — can be more difficult than starting from scratch, so the partners eased into it. Lonow started with revamping the wine program. “I wasn’t going for a Grove Park Inn 500-label list, but we’ve brought in a lot more choices for guests. Instead of one cabernet by the glass, we have four in a wide price range.”
The menu was another story. “In a 10-year-old neighborhood restaurant, everybody has their favorite thing,” he says. “We’d get on the computer and see what wasn’t selling and take those off, and people would get very upset with us.”
For months, the menu remained the same, but when the restaurant closed in January for an interior makeover, chef Andrew McLeod entered the picture. An Asheville native, McLeod’s culinary experience includes years in kitchens run by A-list chefs, including San Francisco’s Joshua Skenes and Michael Tusk and, closer to home, Sean Brock.
McLeod met Lonow working at the Grove Park Inn, where he also met Brock, who had been invited by chef Duane Fernandez to guest-chef a wine dinner. “I was used to working in a very proper, white-toque resort restaurant, then Brock came in with a ball cap, red Vans and carrying a jar of pickles, and I was like, ‘I want to be that guy.’”
When Avenue M reopened after renovations in February, McLeod encountered his own menu conflicts with regulars. “I didn’t realize the depth of feeling a lot of our longtime guests had for that menu,” he says. “It was a big learning experience.”
It was one he had plenty of time to think about when COVID-19 closed Avenue M again in mid-March. “Shutting down turned out in some ways to be helpful,” says McLeod. “It gave us time to think about details, communication and the culture of the restaurant without having to swim upstream against the current of a full dining room.”
The restaurant reopened June 1 for reduced-capacity indoor dining in the spacious 6,000-square-foot building and on the patio. Favorites like spicy ginger tofu, beef medallions and blue crab Rangoons remain, but McLeod’s impact is evident in the addition of fresh pasta and salumi.
“Two things I love to do more than anything is making salumi by hand and pasta by hand,” he says, pointing to the ricotta cavatelli with ’Nduja ragu and pork cracklins as an example. He is also intent on locally sourcing the vast majority of the evolving menu, introducing new dishes via daily specials and bringing in whole hogs for his salumi program.
“There are dishes we will always have,” he assures. “But I also look forward to the kitchen being more dynamic, reactionary and market driven. I’m glad to be home and contributing in Asheville.” For hours of operation and menu details, visit avl.mx/89x.
Griff’s Kitchen & Bar
When Gina and Ian Griffin met five years ago working in a restaurant in Hillsborough — she was front of house, he was cooking — their first conversation ended with a handshake promise to open a restaurant together one day. At that time, Ian was on his way out the kitchen door, embarking on a three-month trip to Japan, Korea and Thailand.
The pair later reconnected on a more personal level, spent a year in Chapel Hill, then moved to Asheville with the intention of realizing their original plan. A wedding, a house, a stint at All Souls Pizza, a baby and a pandemic later, they are finally opening Griff’s Kitchen & Bar at 1390 Sand Hill Road in Candler.
The couple signed the lease in January with plans to open in May, but the pandemic altered both their timeline and their approach. Their original concept of seasonally driven, contemporary American cuisine with global influences from Ian’s travels remained the same. But the operating plan was modified by COVID-19.
In fact, it was modified more than once. Initial plans to open in early October for dine-in dinner service pivoted to offering only takeout lunch due to construction and inspection delays. On Wednesday, Oct. 7, Griff’s will launch order-ahead/curbside pickup lunch service Wednesday through Sunday 11 a.m.-3 p.m.
By late October, Griff’s intends to begin dine-in service on the same five days, implementing two reservations-required seating blocks at 5:30 and 7:30 p.m. With only 20-22 guests allowed per block, the dining room will be well under 50% capacity.
“One of the bigger things to us, with a 4-month-old baby at home, is safety,” Ian Griff says. “For us, our staff and guests.” He suggests keeping an eye on the restaurant’s social media for a firm date on when the dining room will open. For more details and the menu, visit avl.mx/8bo.
PB & Jay’s
Even before Kirsten Fuchs opened Baked Pie Co. in South Asheville in April 2017, she was intrigued by a space in the corner of The Garage on 25 in Fletcher, an artisan market with more than 80 booths rented by makers, collectors and vintage dealers. “I wondered if I could do something in there, but then I opened Baked Pie in Arden and the second in Woodfin, so I was busy,” she says.
The little coffee shop that did go into The Garage at 3461 Hendersonville Road carried some of her baked goods, and when the space became available again in July, the landladies of the building called Fuchs, who had long had an idea to open a peanut-butter-and-jelly eatery. “I know it seems like a strange time to open a new business,” she says. “But it’s a great location with built-in shoppers, a lot of industrial parks nearby and very few breakfast and lunch options.”
She did a minimal remodel of the interior and added a walk-up window and outdoor seating. Extensive menu testing and several unscientific but helpful Facebook surveys led her to develop a menu of sandwiches featuring a variety of nut butters and jams with a choice of breads, toasted or not. Optional additions include marshmallow fluff, bananas, crushed strawberries, honey and candied bacon.
Fuchs intends to offer some Baked Pie muffins, bars and galettes for breakfast, as well as hot oatmeal and possibly waffles. There is a commercial coffee maker for espresso, cappuccino and other specialty drinks that, she admits with a laugh, she needs to learn how to operate before her planned opening date of Friday, Oct. 2.
She notes that she named the business after her father, Jay. “He’s 89 years old, and I really wanted to do this for him.” For operating hours, check here avl.mx/89z